Richard Wright, Centennial of his Birth
One hundred years ago, Richard Wright, one of the most prominent Afro-American authors, was born into a poor family on a plantation in southern Mississippi…as Wright says, “too far back in the woods to hear the train whistle.” The year was 1908, only a few decades after Emancipation. One grandfather had been a slave. His own father, Nathaniel Wright, was a sharecropper who could not read or write. Fortunately, his mother, Ella Wilson, sought to educate herself and for awhile she taught school.
In 1913, the family moved to Memphis where his father soon left them for another woman. His mother became a cook to support her family; but in 1916 when Wright was only eight she became ill and Wright and his brother Leon Alan were sent to a Methodist orphanage. When she recovered, she moved her family back to Mississippi, to Jackson, where they lived with Ella’s mother, but shortly after that move they left for Elaine, Arkansas, to live with Wright’s aunt and uncle, Maggie and Silas Hoskins.
Soon after that move, white racists killed Wright’s uncle, and fearing for their lives Ella and her sons moved to West Helena, Arkansas. In 1919, when Wright was only eleven, his mother suffered a stroke, and in order to be near her during her recovery, he then lived with another uncle and aunt near Greenwood, Mississippi. A year later he was living again in Jackson, Mississippi with his grandmother.
At age 13 Wright entered fifth grade in Jackson but soon advanced to sixth grade. In 1923 he became Valedictorian of his ninth grade class in Jackson, Mississippi. The white assistant principal had prepared the valedictory address, one that did not offend white officials, but the articulate young Wright was able to convince the black administrators to allow him to deliver the address he himself had prepared.
In 1927, with his Aunt Maggie, Wright moved to Chicago, where he began to write for two communist papers, Daily Worker and New Masses. He was also beginning to publish short stories in national magazines. In 1931, his first story, “Superstition,” was published in Abbott’s Monthly Magazine, but the magazine folded before he received his check.
His powerful short story, “Big Boy Leaves Home,” was included in 1936 in The New Caravan Anthology and Wright began attracting attention. In 1938, he published Uncle Tom’s Children, a collection of short stories (some about lynchings in the Deep South) that generated enough money for Wright to move to Harlem.
In Harlem, Wright began his most famous work, Native Son, about Bigger Thomas, a murderer. Published in 1940, Native Son was the first book by an Afro-American author ever selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club. It made Wright internationally famous. With actor John Houseman he wrote a stage version which, directed by Orson Welles, had a successful Broadway run.
In 1947 a Hollywood producer offered to film Native Son if Bigger Thomas could be a white man, and Wright of course refused; in 1951 Wright himself played Bigger Thomas in a film version of Native Son made in Argentina. In 1986 a Hollywood version, good enough to be nominated for the Critics Award at the Deauville Film Festival, was released, starring Victor Love, Matt Damon, and Elizabeth McGovern.
Although he remained a liberal, believing in democratic solutions to political problems, Wright in the early 1940s became disillusioned with communism. In 1946 he moved to Paris, becoming a permanent expatriate (his circle included Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus as well as other expatriates like James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison). In 1947 he published his first autobiography, Black Boy; his second autobiography covered later years, particularly dealing with his disillusionment with the Communist Party, but it was not published until 1977, almost two decades after his death. In 1949 Wright contributed to the popular anti-communist anthology, The God that Failed. In 1954 he published a commentary on the emerging nations of Africa, Black Power, and in 1957 a collection of lectures, White Man, Listen!
During the McCarthy Era, Wright was on the “red list” in Hollywood (and thereby included in the company of such “Un-Americans” as Aaron Copland, Edward G. Robinson, Orson Welles, Dalton Trumbo, Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy Parker, and Arthur Miller).
Wright passed away on November 28, 1960, only 52 years old. He was cremated in Paris along with a copy of Black Boy. In the original editions of his books, publishers had cut out many of the more shocking passages regarding race, sex, white politics—including in Native Son and Black Boy—but in 1991 unexpurgated editions were published. His unfinished novel, A Father’s Law, about a black policeman who suspects his son is a murderer, was completed by his daughter Julia Wright and just published in January 2008.
In part because of the efforts of Richard Wright, old myths about the foolish, funny, subservient black man were destroyed, and a reluctant America was finally forced to see accurate portrayals of black people, black history, and contemporary black life.